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NottWords big weekend: it was (w)rite good!

Sue Bulmer’s Festival artwork – created on Saturday by visitors at theFestival of Words

Nottingham’s Festival of Words is in full swing and this past weekend was the main event – two days of activities packed inside NTU’s shiny Newton Building. Armed with my weekend pass wristband, notebook and packed lunch I went along.

The festival was there to celebrate words in all forms and in many different guises so craft, art, cookery and performance all played their part but unsurprisingly it was writing that took centre stage. From the events I attended, a number of themes emerged.

The first is that writing can’t be taught. You can’t tell someone, “this is how it’s done.” You can only tell them, “this is how I do it.” That didn’t stop us trying though. In one workshop, Making Lace, we examined the practicalities – from having the right pen to having the time or space to receive and examine ideas. In another, we explored ways of working with others and how bouncing ideas off someone else can inspire new direction.

The second was that we all need to connect somehow. Writing can be a solitary existence but coming together to discuss techniques, to discuss inspiration and to discuss fear was something of a relief. You do sometimes feel that perhaps you’re all alone. You’re not.

Added to that though was a sense of purpose. As a celebration of words, the festival explored power. Frances Thimann, in a talk entitled It’s the Words Stupid! discussed how we take words for granted but that they reflect all our history and that they can change meaning through connections and context. “The shadows of previous usage underline whatever mood you’re trying to portray.”

A further theme was about pigeonholing and diversity. In his keynote speech on Sunday, Bali Rai discussed his irritation with being described as an issues writer and as an ‘ethnic’ writer. He didn’t want a separate section in the bookshop for Black and Asian writing, he wanted to be in the fiction section. It’s a conversation I remember having at Waterstone’s many years ago over the LGBT writing section. Choose to have it or not, either way you will offend someone. Perhaps just being able to have the conversation is a good start.

AL Kennedy touched upon this in her keynote speech on Saturday. She has tried to avoid being pigeonholed – as a Scot, as a woman – but it seems to be a curse. Full humanity, she said, wasn’t just suffering. Why, if you’re part of an oppressed group must you write of that, why not other things? Palestinians can write comic verse if they want. We can all do those things. Words have the power.

Kennedy’s speech was my favourite part of the festival. She talked of helping people to write – her early career involved working with people with disabilities or socially excluded people. “All we did  was work out what people wanted to say and figure out how to do that. It made people happier.”

Mostly she talked of fear. It’s fear that defeats many people, stops them from writing or from finding their voice and so in her attempt to teach us about writing (see my first point above) she merely said that we shouldn’t be scared.

“Being without fear is the key and the solution to most problems. Our nightmares are bad enough. Our dreams must be better and louder and unafraid.”

I’m taking it for my new motto.

Sue is one of our team of bloggers. She can be found scribbling in random notebooks in coffeeshops and venues across the city, when she’s got a free moment. In the meantime she can be reached on sue AT and followed on Twitter @basfordian